Ten Reasons I loved Flying The Sea Harrier FA2

“Have a look at number two’s flaps. They are UP not at MID like the rest of ours. Silly boy. I was number 3.”

Paul Tremelling flew the ultimate Sea Harrier, the formidable FA2, with Britain’s Royal Navy. This Cold War naval fighter was equipped with some of the most capable weapons and sensors in the world, and proved a dangerous opponent to those who underestimated the tenacious little jump-jet. As Paul explains, the Sea Harrier could also bite pilots who didn’t handle it with due care. Deadly, unique and characterful, those who flew the Sea Harrier inevitably fell in love with it. Here Paul shares ten fascinating reasons why he loved flying what was affectionately known as the ‘SHAR’.

“…if you flew a Sea Harrier in the speed band of 30-120 knots, with sideslip  – the jet had a little treat for you. It flipped over and you died.”

10. The boat

I know, it’s a ship. I said it just to annoy the people who get annoyed by that sort of thing. Going to the ship is special. It’s a heart-warming experience finding a slate grey bit of the UK bobbing around on the sea. Especially when your fuel plan allows you for not much more that ‘find ship and land’ at the end of a tactical rough and tumble. The only issue with a ship being our base was that absolutely everything became harder. It moved, in the sense of not being where it was supposed to be 100% of the time. It moved, in the sense of it would actually be pitching, heaving and rolling (and yawing) when you were trying to land on it. But it was home and it made us (almost) unique. It’s probably impossible to be almost unique. Being in the ship made things harder. It was harder to move between briefing rooms, it was harder to make phone calls to coordinate with other assets. It was harder to find your immersion suit. But it was also the most exciting form of ‘fast jet’ aviation available to a British pilot and it made you good at what you did. It put you in a variety of corners and offered you a simple choice – cope or be gone. There were plenty of differences to operating ashore that seem obvious but you did need to learn them. Things like having your ejection seat live whenever you were in the aeroplane. This wasn’t a thing at an airfield because the chances of you falling off an airfield and into the sea whilst strapped to a jet are minimal or nil. If you pitch up at an airfield either before or after your allotted landing time it is doubtful that you’ll have messed up the entire day for everyone who works there – that’s possible on a ship! There is also the much misunderstood notion of being amongst a platform’s primary outputs. This should not result in arrogance. This should result in humility and a desire to get things right. If a whole ship’s company is there to put you into the battlespace (repeat – amongst other key tasks) you had better not screw it up!

9. The AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile

The Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile was, and remains, your best bet for coming home alive if you happen to get into an air-to-air engagement with someone else. It is on the one hand the weapon that sets the standard for all others and, because anyone who was sensible bought them, it is also the currency medium-range weapon of the free world. The Sea Harrier got it a little before everyone else and it was perfectly integrated into the machine. It seemed to have a holy marriage with the Blue Vixen and could be used to bring pain to the enemy in any weather by day or night. It is the AIM-120 and Blue Vixen combination that took the Falkland era FRS Mk 1 which was a simple jet with moveable nozzles – to the FA2 standard which was a decent air defender. The real joy of the Sea Harrier setup was that most aircraft at the time were used to enormous amounts of energy being needed to guide weapons onto them. This allowed them to use their warning receivers to detect weapons being launched at them. Not the Blue Vixen and AMRAAM combo. Sadly [or happily] never used in combat by the UK.

Pre-order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here

8. The corners

There would be no real point in mastering a jet which didn’t need to be mastered in the first place. Part of being the pilot of a British machine was to acknowledge and overcome its shortcomings (one day we’ll invent something foible-free) or to avoid them altogether. The Sea Harrier had a couple of corners one had to avoid. It might sound a little far-fetched – but if you flew a Sea Harrier in the speed band of 30-120 knots, with sideslip, i.e. not going straight forward and with a raised angle of attack – the jet had a little treat for you. It flipped over and you died. Full stop; unless you were very quick at getting rid of one of those three conditions. You could fly around all day with two out of the three and be safe as houses – but all three brought doom, and quickly. Similarly, if you wanted a relaxing day at the office you knew how much fuel and water could be on board for the jet to hover and you never attempted to see what happened above those weights. Simple answer – a crash. The jet was actually quite good at telling you whether or not you could hover as the power the engine was developing as you passed 100 knots decelerating could give you an accurate estimation of that needed to hover. The last thing to be avoided at all cost was to go anywhere near the ramp without first having done the calculations to determine minimum and maximum deck run. If you tried to go from less than the minimum then you crashed. If you went from beyond the maximum it caused the nose wheel to collapse and, well, you crashed. Knowing and avoiding these corners was, in many ways, what being a Sea Harrier pilot was all about – bending this fabulous machine to your will!

7. The ramp

Let’s be honest, few people understand VSTOL, fewer people understand VIFF, fewer still understand the ramp. Think of it as a ballistic throw that allows you to accelerate on a runway that isn’t there. There were a couple of things to get right going off the ramp. As we mentioned above there was a maximum and minimum deck run that needed to be calculated on every launch. This would depend on aircraft weight, air temperature/pressure and individual engine performance. It would result in the two distances – and the nozzle setting to be used, snatched in by the left hand at ramp exit and also the tailplane setting. If you had a very short run the ramp looked like a wall in front of you. The minimum deck run was 200 feet. Any shorter and the engine would not spool up in time as you launched.

Early ramp test with Sea Harrier FRS.1 carried out on land.

On the boat, the technique was relatively simple and once all other procedures had been followed and the launch was ordered by the ship and one had been shown a green flag – it really was just a case of waiting. Waiting for the ramp to be going down through the far horizon before a smart slam to full power. By holding the brakes it was possible to momentarily delay travel to check that the engine appeared to be fine, before the aircraft skidded and it was time to release the brakes and go! The pilot pointed at the centre of the ramp, which by this time would be going back up and snatched in nozzle as jet parted company with ship. At night this took you from dim light to abyss in a heartbeat. A pretty cool way of defeating gravity. Whilst we’re on the subject – night approaches to the ship in a VSTOL fighter, without any night vision aid – is about as high end as it gets.

This site is facing a funding shortage and may pause or shut down in June, please consider donating. Our site is absolutely free and we want to keep it that way. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. Your donations keep this going.

This wasn’t just any old club. This was a club that was forged in a pretty gnarly furnace called combat. It was a club whose everyday business was single-seat flying from aircraft carriers. It had a heritage that harked back to one of the modern world’s most decisive air power results – the besting of everything that Argentina could throw at the Task Force. Sure, there are modern and accurate examinations of the war that throw new light on the efficacy of the Argentine attack – and yes the main attribute of the Sea Harrier itself was that it was there. But the Royal Navy and RAF aircrew who fought in the Falklands conflict and the maintenance personnel who gave them jet after serviceable jet – set a tone and an expectation that the community carried forward for its whole service life. This did lend itself to some of the training becoming a little bit of a rite of passage – but who would want to join a club that didn’t have some form of barrier to entry? Who would let sub-standard applicants into a club they cherished? Perhaps club is the wrong term, perhaps ‘community’ is a better one. Whatever we decide it doesn’t really matter – what mattered was that one way or another you were thought of as being connected to some amazing aviators, maintainers and other squadron personnel – who gave a land-based air force and its maritime sister service a kicking the world will never forget. 5000 miles away from home, operating from two smallish aircraft carriers. Every day as a Sea Harrier pilot is your job was to be a worthy successor to them.

Listen to The Hush-Kit podcast (episode features Al Murray discussing the Westland Whirlwind) here

6. Vectoring in Forward Flight (VIFFing)

 If V/STOL (see below) was about using the nozzles to take off and land efficiently, Vectoring In Forward Flight was the science/ art of using them to increase the combat effectiveness of the aircraft. Combat effectiveness is really only made up of two things. Lethality and survivability. In air-to-air combat it’s all about getting a weapon off at your adversary, from a position that it will actually work – whilst denying him/ her the chance to do the same. VIFF is, on the face of it, quite simple and is about moving the nozzles, whilst in flight, to point the thrust somewhere other than straight back. The nozzles could be used to bring the nose to bear when aerodynamic forces had already given their all. They could also be used to tighten turns towards an enemy and deny them a shot opportunity by giving them a massive closure problem to deal with. One could slow down rapidly with one big movement of the nozzles or use them in small ‘bites’ to gain a little advantage at a time. Again the nozzles were controlled using the simple lever on the left-hand side of the cockpit. If jet combat is quite a trial on the body, eyesight, inner ear and various other human bits and pieces – the injection of vectored thrust adds a further degree of brutality. What usually happened with nozzles was that people used them in a cycle. An application of nozzle would give you an advantage in a fight, for example using them fully forward to kill your speed and getting an adversary to overtake – straight into your missile envelope. This momentary success would result in a couple of months of nozzle-use in every fight. Some of these would give the user no advantage whatsoever as they bled energy off the jet, so had to be used judiciously. At some point the evil forces of over-use and complacency would coalesce and – in exactly the same situation as they proved so useful before – the nozzles would bite you, and hard. Nozzles had to be used sensibly and had a couple of handling instructions such as ‘Ease off the back stick before applying’. If this advice wasn’t heeded the jet would flick and start tumbling through the air. This was termed a departure from controlled flight. A good departure was a little eye-watering and would put you off nozzle use for a little bit. But then a day would come when a little VIFF was required – it would go well and the cycle could start again.  

5. Vertical/ Short Take-Off Landing

V/STOL. It has to be acknowledged that V/STOL never killed any bad guys – and was at least partially responsible for a few accidents along the way. The trick with Vertical/ Short Take Off and Landing was to maintain a healthy balance between familiarity and skill fade. To never allow fear or complacency to creep in. Thus the Sea harrier driver could take off vertical, almost vertically, using a short take-off technique – all of which used the nozzles; or indeed just do without them and take off like a normal aeroplane using aft stick at the correct speed. The number of different take-off techniques was matched by a similarly broad means of landing. All the way from the heart-pounding Conventional Landing which tended to be very fast – to the vertical landing we always used at the boat. A good example of which had a firm, but not teeth-chattering arrival at the far end. All these techniques relied upon the elegantly simple nozzle lever which deflected the nozzles from straight back, to 19 degrees forward. Somewhere at the heart of these was the ability to hover. To sit on a stack of air and, whilst monitoring thrust and precious little fuel, delight in having bucked a major law of physics using the amazing Pegasus engine. Like the Blue Vixen another masterpiece of engineering. At home in the hover, comfortable at 500 knots, able to cope with savage accelerations and decelerations if the Blue Vixen was the brains of the show – the Pegasus was a Harrier’s beating heart.

4. The Blue Vixen radar

British engineering has had a patchy history. One of the undoubted highlights, if not the zenith of our achievements is the Blue Vixen as fielded by the Sea Harrier FA2. It is quite hard to summarise briefly so I will use one word: Superb. The radar was easy to use, the switches were intuitive and the display simple. We used to compare it to US systems which I have since used – and I learned that it was streets ahead of them. It had a high enough power output to form tracks on adversaries at decent ranges – but was sufficiently subtle to go unnoticed too. As one of the first radars that didn’t need to illuminate a target to guide a missile onto its prey – this caught out quite a few exercise foes. The radar had an extraordinary capacity for showing multiple tracks at once and really only needed a single mode for an entire intercept which made it simple but effective. In slightly geeky radar speak it used the correct emissions to get the best results depending on whether it was looking up or down. It could be used in the visual arena to cue a Sidewinder onto a target when ‘in close and personal’; it could be used for a ‘self-talk down’ to the boat; it could be used to tighten up the bombing solution or to upgrade the gunsight. Fabulous system.

via @rowlandwhite/Twitter

3. Multirole

Everything in aviation is a compromise. Even the machines that don’t look like compromises are at some level – maybe in capability, possibly in the development budget. The Sea Harrier could make a fist of most roles including attack, reconnaissance and air defence. The nomenclature has changed over time but the essence of the missions hasn’t. The motto of the Sea Harrier headquarters Squadron, 899 Naval Air Squadron was Strike and Defend for good reason. For a significant part of its history, the Sea Harrier possessed the UK’s most potent air-to-air weapon in AMRAAM and its most potent anti-shipping weapon in Sea Eagle. It could also drop dumb bombs, with a weapon aiming system which was actually pretty accurate and the jet could be armed with cannon. It couldn’t do many of these roles at once – but few platforms throughout history have been able to. Almost forgot – it did have a decent, if basic reconnaissance camera – used in the Falklands, the Balkans and in Sierra Leone. The multi-role nature of the jet was reflected in the training, meaning that you had to stay up to speed on numerous roles and weapons. In peacetime there are few sorties as rewarding as fighting through an air threat, to deliver air-to-surface stores before doing the same again to get back to the boat.

2. Single-Seat Cockpit

Flying a single-seat fast jet is hard work – but also one of unbounded joy. There are a couple of ways of complicating already complex tasks. One of the best is to subdivide them further and assign them to different people whilst accepting that the two lists are interwoven and that any breakdown is sub-optimal. The obvious antidote to this poisoned line of reasoning is to equip a suitably able and trained person with all the tools they need to do the role on their own. In the aviation world, this results in the single-seat cockpit. The Sea Harrier had a superb integrated weapon system and all the information that the driver needed was readily available. It allowed one person of the requisite ability to fight the aircraft across its entire flight envelope and range of roles. What could possibly be better than being in complete charge of one’s own destiny when blasting off the front of the carrier (or getting back to it)? Yes, teamwork between jets was critical but teamwork between the self-sufficient was incredibly rewarding.

  1. The club

This wasn’t just any old club. This was a club that was forged in a pretty gnarly furnace called combat. It was a club whose everyday business was single-seat flying from aircraft carriers. It had a heritage that harked back to one of the modern world’s most decisive airpower results – the besting of everything that Argentina could throw at the Task Force. Sure, there are modern and accurate examinations of the war that throw new light on the efficacy of the Argentine attack – and yes the main attribute of the Sea Harrier itself was that it was there. But the Royal Navy and RAF aircrew who fought in the Falklands conflict and the maintenance personnel who gave them jet after serviceable jet – set a tone and an expectation that the community carried forward for its whole service life. This did lend itself to some of the training becoming a little bit of a rite of passage – but who would want to join a club that didn’t have some form of barrier to entry? Who would let sub-standard applicants into a club they cherished? Perhaps ‘club’ is the wrong term, perhaps ‘community’ is a better one. Whatever we decide it doesn’t really matter – what mattered was that one way or another you were thought of as being connected to some amazing aviators, maintainers and other squadron personnel – who gave a land-based air force and its maritime sister service a kicking the world will never forget. 5000 miles away from home, operating from two smallish aircraft carriers. Every day as a Sea Harrier pilot it was your job to be a worthy successor to them.

This site is facing a funding shortage and may pause or shut down in June, please consider donating. Our site is absolutely free and we want to keep it that way. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. Your donations keep this going.

Buy Paul’s book here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s